Over his long and prolific writing career, Christopher Hitchens has targeted Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana and God, but on Friday he tackled a potentially more challenging subject: himself. At an event hosted by the New York Public Library, Hitchens spoke with Paul Holdengraber, the director of public programs for the NYPL, about his childhood, controversial opinions and what he sees as his own shortcomings.
The conversation was part of his promotion for his new memoir, Hitch-22. Hitchens explained that the decision to write the book came in part because of a mistake made by the National Portrait Gallery of London. In its catalog, the gallery included a photo of the writer, erroneously captioned, "the late Christopher Hitchens."
"When you read about yourself in the past tense, it has a way of focusing the mind," said Hitchens. He cited the advice of a friend who said that writers should try to write posthumously. "Picture yourself writing postmortem and then you are free of all the inhibitions that can cluster around you."
The talk of death included a lengthy discussion of the art of obituaries, and the value of the memoir as a way to keep death at bay. It also moved into a discussion of Hitchens' parents and the tragic circumstances of his mother's death, after becoming frustrated with her marriage to the author's father.
"When she could, she left him--she left him too late--and went off with a man who was not boring. He could quote poetry, was charming," said Hitchens. "But alas, unlike my father, was not thrifty, not modest, not honest, not brave, and almost certainly I think bipolar. He needed to die and he wanted to take her with him, and they made a suicide pact and carried it out."
Holdengraber read Hitchens' description of the afternoon he went to the Athens hotel suite where the two lovers had killed themselves, in the midst of a counterrevolution in the city: "The two bodies had to be removed and their coffins sealed before I could get there. This was for the viscerally sordid reason that the dead couple had taken a while to be discovered... I hide my tears and my nausea by pretending to seek some air at the window. And there, for the first time, I receive a shattering, full-on view of the Acropolis."
It was not until days later that Hitchens learned the death was a suicide, and not murder as the police had suspected. Hitchens also learned, after the hotel phone records were checked, that his mother had been calling his London phone number repeatedly before her suicide.
But despite these difficult memories, Hitchens kept the conversation from becoming morbid, bristling when Holdengraber suggested that Hitch 22 reflected the author's fear of death. "I don't know anyone who's come out of this a winner," he said.
Hitchens discussed his childhood as something of the golden boy in his family (before his mother left, he overheard his parents arguing about how they could afford sending him to school, and was delighted when his mother declared "if anyone in this family is going to be part of the ruling class, it will be Christopher"--not that he knew what "ruling class" meant at the time.) Connected to this, he described how important it was for him to be called Christopher: "I'm against circumcision--please don't call me Chris." Hitchens also touched on what he feared were his own challenges as a father.
He delved into his friendships with the writers Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, as well as his concern that it is getting harder to cultivate a "common discourse" as a society, where most students have read authors like Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Holdengraber recalled asking a student years ago if he had read "Bartleby, the Scrivener." "His response was: 'not personally,'" said Holdengraber, to which Hitchens responded, "In England, the answer would be: 'not as such.'"
But Hitchens did find something of a "common discourse," when he recited several limericks on topics from James Joyce's Ulysses, as well as much less lofty material, and told a dirty joke in which he replaced the word "heart" in popular songs and phrases with "dick."
"We talked about Flaubert, Balzac, Proust, but what the audience really wants is a little tincture of filth," Hitches said, to applause.
As part of the LIVE from the NYPL program, the event promoted the Don't Close the Book on Libraries fundraising effort, and Holdengraber urged attendees to make an instant $10 donation to the library by texting "NYPL" to 27722.
The host added a multimedia element to the evening by including several audio clips: an old jazz song from Fats Waller, a clip of a lecture from historian Isaiah Berlin, and a reading by W.H. Auden of his 1965 poem "On the Circuit." While each clip was meant to evoke some poignant aspect of Hitchens' past, each felt overlong and the audience seemed eager to just get back to the conversation and hear what Hitchens had to say next.